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Women with vague symptoms - such as fatigue, general aches, and acid indigestion - are likely to be told they're just "stressed". However, the truth could be devastating, even potentially-deadly.

Mistaken for Stress: Bowel Cancer

Bowel cancer initially causes vague symptoms. So vague that when young British student nurse Anna Flood, now 28, was told repeatedly over three years that her tiredness and indigestion were just stress, she believed her doctor completely. It later transpired that she had a tumour on her large intestine, a section of which had to be removed.

If you have these symptoms for three weeks or more, go to see your doctor:

  • a change in your bowel motions: looser stools, going more often (diarrhoea), and bloody stools
  • a change in your bowel habit without blood in their stools, but with abdominal pain
  • blood in the stools not linked to haemorrhoids (so without a protruding lump in the anus)
  • abdominal pain, discomfort or bloating when you eat, leading you to eat less and lose weight
Be aware that you might not feel very ill with bowel cancer.

Mistaken for Stress: Multiple Sclerosis

14% of patients with MS are initially misdiagnosed with "stress". When Kate, a teacher from Bristol, started suffering with the telltale "strange sensations" in her leg and wrist, she was told by a neurologist that it was just "stress" after her recent break-up with a boyfriend. Fortunately, he referred her for a scan, "just in case", which diagnosed the condition.

Many patients with Multiple Sclerosis aren't so lucky, having to wait three years for any kind of diagnosis.

It's hard to list the symptoms of MS, as there are a huge range of potential symptoms, affecting all areas of the body, and they vary from person to person. However, here are some of the most common symptom categories:

  • Fatigue
  • vision problems
  • numbness/tingling
  • muscle spasms/stiffness/weakness
  • mobility problems
  • pain
  • depression and anxiety
  • sexual problems
  • bowel/bladder problems
  • speech and swallowing problems
Many people with MS have only a few symptoms.

If you think you might have early symptoms of MS, see a doctor. Be aware that many of these symptoms have plenty of other causes, too, many of which are temporary.

Mistaken for Stress: Cerebral Aneurysm

If you've been getting a lot of headaches, you probably think it's just stress. Especially if you're a woman with two children, a busy job, and a generally hectic life. However, they could be a sign of a potentially deadly cerebral aneurysm. An estimated 6 million Americans have an unruptured cerebral aneurysm. 30,000 of them rupture each year and half are fatal.

If you have these signs, see a doctor:

  • A drooping eyelid
  • Pain above and behind an eye
  • A dilated pupil
  • Change in vision/double vision
  • Numbness/weakness/paralysis of one side of the face

If you have these signs, seek immediate medical attention:

  • The worst headache you have ever had - sudden and extremely severe headache
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Stiff neck
  • Blurred or double vision
  • Sensitivity to light
  • Seizure
  • A drooping eyelid
  • Loss of consciousness
  • Confusion
Remember: a ruptured cerebral aneurysm could still lead to permanent brain damage. So don't wait to get checked.

Mistaken for Stress: Ovarian Cancer

In Ovarian Cancer, symptoms rarely appear until it's too late. 1200 Australian women are diagnosed with ovarian cancer, sometimes called "the silent killer", every year; 700 will die from it. That's 58%.

The symptoms are vague and easily mistaken for stress, especially since many women develop vague gastrointestinal symptoms, which lead to investigations of the bowel or bladder. Due to the tucked-in location of the ovaries, very often a pelvic examination is needed to spot ovarian cancer.

In 15% of women, ovarian cancer was spotted while the patient was being investigated for another condition.

Be aware of the following signs and be persistent if you notice them:

  • Gastrointestinal symptoms: nausea, bloating, and heartburn
  • Diarrhoea, and constipation
  • Appetite loss
  • Tiredness
  • Weight changes
  • Abdominal cramps not associated with bowel changes
  • Urinary incontinence
  • Irregular vaginal bleeding

Final Words

Although these conditions can be mistaken for stress, remember that many of them are rare and the odds of your symptoms being caused by them are low. Try not to worry, but always get your symptoms checked by a trusted doctor.

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